Open Letter to Protect Vulnerable Populations During Florida’s 2020 Elections

Governor DeSantis and Supervisors of Elections,

 

As of August 2020, more than 650,000 individuals in Florida have already been infected by the COVID-19 virus and over 12,300 Floridians have died, with the death toll continuing to rise each day. We have not seen a challenge of this magnitude to our society in modern times, and our entire nation has been thrown into turmoil as we struggle to contain the spread and impact of the virus. Though states are slowly beginning to ease protections and restrictions, as public health experts and scientists, we know that this pandemic is far from over and will continue to impact our lives for months and years to come. One thing that is particularly concerning is the undeniable fact that COVID-19 will impact the upcoming fall elections in the United States, unless Florida prepares now.

 

If more than half of the 9 million plus Floridians initially expected to turn out in 2020 cast their votes in-person on Election Day, a preventable spike in COVID-19 cases could overwhelm our healthcare system capacity. To mitigate this risk, we will need to ensure that voters have a range of options to cast their ballot that avoids lines and crowding on Election Day. We must encourage as many people as possible to vote by mail while maintaining and creating as many in-person voting options as possible that are safe and compliant with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in order to reduce the likelihood of lines and crowding on Election Day.

 

Coronaviruses spread mainly through respiratory droplets, and is effective at "community spread" where people may be infected in public spaces, including in and around polling places. While there are many models predicting the progression of the pandemic, there is no doubt that COVID-19 will continue to fundamentally affect our economy and society until a reliable vaccine is developed and safely administered to millions of people nationwide. 

 

In the meantime, there are significant portions of Florida’s population that will continue to be at higher risk of infection. Adults over 60, who make up 26.7% of Florida’s population, are more likely to be recruited as poll workers during elections, and experience higher rates of severe illness and death. Additionally, clusters of cases are found disproportionately in counties with greater non-white, uninsured, and high-poverty populations, compounding the problem. These same populations are more likely to still need in-person voting, illustrating the risk that the virus poses to the integrity of our election.

 

The accumulation of available science points to a triple threat-- endangering our health, our democracy, and the economy this November: vulnerable populations will need multiple options to participate in the election, and need to be encouraged to vote by mail when possible. Florida’s vote by mail system ensures that voters, especially those at highest risk, can cast their ballots safely without leaving their homes.

 

Yet even with a strong vote-by-mail program, millions of Floridians, due to disability, lack of residential mail access, language access barriers, or other needs still need to vote in-person on or before Election Day. So we must expand access to early voting locations, days, and hours so that in-person voters can spread out across many locations and times and avoid high-risk scenarios such as crowded polling places. All of those in-person voting locations must be accessible and operated in compliance with the CDC's safety protocols for polling places.

 

Florida must prepare now to protect our elections and our public health. Florida must ensure that counties maximize the use of early voting, ensure widespread use and strong siting of secure drop-boxes, and must use all available resources to prevent consolidation of polling places. Finally, Florida must ensure that counties have sufficient protective gear and sanitization supplies to meet CDC guidelines for facilitating safe in-person voting come November. 

 

It is not too late to protect democracy and public health. Florida must prepare now for the upcoming November election. Without adequate preparation, there is a significant risk of creating congestion at polling locations that could propel another wave of COVID-19 outbreaks. However, if election officials begin preparing now to shift as many voters as possible toward mail voting and to ensure that in-person voting is spread out, we will be able to protect public health while ensuring that all voters are able to participate in our democracy.

 

Respectfully yours,

Dr. Ponrathi Athilingam, BSN, MSN, MPH, PhD

Lutz, FL

 

Dr. Ankush Bansal, MD

Palm Beach Gardens, FL

 

Dr. Alexander Busko, MD, MPH

Delray Beach, FL

 

Marcelle Crago, BSN, RN

Sarasota, FL

 

Dr. William Cumming, MD

Gainesville, FL

 

Dr. Francis LaLuna, MD

Sarasota, FL

Dr. Harold Lazar MD

LaBelle, FL

 

Dr. Michael J. Lynch, MA, PhD

Tampa, FL

 

Victoria Martinez, MS

Niceville, FL

 

Dr. Thomas Mason, MS, PhD

Lutz, FL

 

Candace McManus, MPH, DPH

Merritt Island, FL

 

Dr. Ralph Milliken, MD, MBA

Hobe Sound, FL

 

Dr. Douglas Morse, PhD, DDS

St. Augustine, FL

 

Dr. James Olcese, PhD

Tallahassee, FL

 

Dr. Boris Ovodenko, MD

Cooper City, FL

 

Dr. Stephanie Pau, PhD

Tallahassee, FL

 

Dr. Barbara Redding, PhD, RN

Temple Terrace, FL

 

Dr. David Shern, PhD

Valrico, FL

 

Anya Shevchenko-Mason, MA, PhD-c

Lutz, FL 

 

Dr. Peter Sigmann, MD

Port Orange, FL

 

Dr. Ruth Steiner, MBA, PhD

Gainesville, FL

 

Dr. Tania Velez, MD, DIMPH

Orlando, FL

 

Dr. Nataliya Yakovleva, MD, MBA

Largo, FL

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